When most Pennsylvanians think of coal region history, their minds invariably turn to the Molly Maguires, Yuengling beer, pierogies, and the Pottsville Maroons professional football team. However, there is a side of coal region history that is seldom discussed; a dark, violent side that resembles something out of a Martin Scorsese movie starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci.
Many Pennsylvanians would be surprised to learn that, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Northumberland County was a haven of organized crime, a place where gunshots rang out as regularly as church bells, leaving in their wake a blood-smeared trail of terror. Perhaps the most chilling mob murder in the county took place in early 1939, not far from the curve on Brennan's Farm Road in Kulpmont.
|A 1933 Plymouth coupe|
A Gruesome Discovery
On the morning of Thursday, March 2, 1939, two brothers from Marion Heights, Paul and Mickey Mall, set out from their Melrose Street home in order to engage in some bootleg mining at Brennan's Farm, just south of Kulpmont. At around 7 o'clock that morning, as they scoured the woods for suitable mine timber, the brothers spotted a green 1933 Plymouth coupe mired in ice and mud about 150 feet off the side of the road. When the brothers approached the automobile they were shocked to see a trail of blood tricking out of the vehicle onto the ground below. They were even more shocked at what they found inside the car.
One of the brothers peered into the vehicle and saw the bloodied body of a man slumped over in the driver's seat. Further investigation revealed a second body stuffed into the rumble seat compartment in the back of the coupe. The brothers hightailed it back into town to notify the state police and Motor Policeman George O'Day and C.E. Shade soon arrived at the scene. They were joined a short while later by Officer Hochreiter.
Whomever had jammed the body into the rumble seat compartment had stuffed the corpse so tightly that none of the officers were able to open the compartment, so they sent for a tow truck from Clauser's garage, which towed the coupe out of the mud and transported it to Martz's garage in Shamokin.
The car was soon identified as belonging to Fred Pensyl, a 27-year-old resident of Reading who had formerly lived in Shamokin and worked as the driver of a coal truck. Officer Hochreiter and Detective Donald Zimmerman took the deceased man's wife and mother to the police barracks for questioning. Esther Sassaman, who had married Pensyl less than a year earlier, told officers that the last time she had seen her husband was around midnight of the preceding Thursday. According to their story, Fred Pensyl and Esther Sassaman had driven up from Reading on February 13 to visit a sick relative at the Shamokin hospital. In Shamokin, the two visitors had stayed at the home of Esther's mother, Stella Nolan. A week before the murders, Pensyl returned to his apartment in Reading for a change of clothing for himself and his wife. That was the last time Esther saw her husband alive.
The second victim found dead in the couple was 35-year-old John J. Mansfield, who had been paroled from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia around Christmas after serving ten years for armed robbery. After his release, Mansfield lodged with his aunt, Mrs. Sarah O'Brien, at 415 North Washington Street in Shamokin. According to Mrs. O'Brien, Pensyl showed up with his car on Friday morning and the two men quickly departed. Her nephew did not say where they were going or when they would be back.
The Crime Scene
Brennan's Farm, which was located south of Kulpmont in the vicinity of the present-day Holy Angels Cemetery (formerly the Assumption BVM and St. Casimir cemeteries) was a popular picnic spot in the late 19th century, but had been abandoned when the nearby Scott Colliery was built in 1905. At the time of the murders, the former fields and woodlands, now grown over with brush, were used only by underage drinkers, coal bootleggers and target shooters. It was in one of these overgrown former fields adjacent to the highway where the car was found.
By the time the state police arrived, large crowds had gathered around the "mystery death car". Officer Hochreiter dispersed the crowd in order to protect tire marks and other clues. Policemen at the scene located an empty suitcase with a tag bearing the name "Hilmer Burk", with a Washington Street address not far from the O'Brien house where John J. Mansfield was staying. Police thoroughly searched the nearby woods but were unable to locate the murder weapon.
Further confounding matters was the unreliability of Pensyl's nineteen-year-old wife, Esther Sassaman. Esther told police that she and Pensyl lived in Reading at 523 Franklin Street, even though the murdered man's driver's license listed his residence as 332 Mulberry Street, Reading. It is unclear why Esther never reported her husband as missing. Nevertheless, police believed that Pensyl and Mansfield were involved in underworld activities and that the men were killed in Reading and their bodies transported to Kulpmont. Another theory was that the two men were followed from Reading and ambushed.
Police also believed that the position of Pensyl's body indicated that he was killed as he sat in the driver's seat, and Coroner Kallaway reported that the man's death had been instantaneous. Police were also exploring the possibility that a third man may have been riding with Pensyl and Mansfield, and killed the men after an argument at the scene of the crime. Mansfield's corpse was frozen solid when taken from the rumble seat compartment, and both rear and front windows had been shattered by bullets, with three bullet holes found in the windshield. A bullet hole was found in the back of the car, to the left of the rear window. The fact blood had tricked from the rumble seat indicated that the shooting took place the previous night, along with the fact that the blood stains on the ground were frozen solid. Unfortunately, since much of the crime scene had been trampled by curiosity seekers, police were unable to discern anything from the tire tracks and footprints.
Tarvia, Bruised Knuckles and a Not-So-Lucky Rabbit's Foot
By noon, three experts from Harrisburg arrived at the Martz garage in Shamokin to examine the evidence. These men were Capt. Harry McElroy, chief of detectives, State Police Lieutenant William Miller, and fingerprint expert Paul Shuster. They believed more than one person was involved in the murders, since Mansfield's body would've been difficult to cram into the rumble seat compartment. They ruled out robbery as a motive; the only things stolen were the contents of the mysterious suitcase, which they believed belonged to Mansfield. Both corpses were still wearing watches, while Pensyl was wearing an expensive ring and (ironically enough) a lucky rabbit's foot.
One astute officer noticed that the hood of the automobile was spattered with tarvia, a popular road surface in the early 1900s. This suggested that the car had recently been driven over a freshly-repaired section of highway, though no traces of tarvia were found on the tires. The death car had 1939 Pennsylvania plates reading VN507, but it was later discovered that this plate number did not appear on any PA Department of Transportation lists.
An examination of the bodies revealed that Mansfield's knuckles were badly scratched and bruised, thus indicating a violent encounter just before his death. Pensyl's death resulted from a gunshot wound to the forehead, near his right temple. It appeared that Mansfield had suffered the most, however; he had a bullet wound above his left eye and another through his left shoulder and still another through the back of his head. There also appeared to be evidence of assault with a blunt object.
|A 1930s postcard showing Ashland State Hospital, where the autopsies took place.|
Three Hauled in for Questioning
The following day, March 3, the state police raided a Reading hotel and arrested three men: Tony Lamanico, of Shamokin, Charles Feather, of Shenandoah, and Frank Certo, of Brunswick, New Jersey. It was known to Berks County authorities that Lamanico and Fred Pensyl had been proprietors of a "house of ill repute" on North Seventh Street in Reading. According to Berks County Detective Fred Marks, Charles Feather and Tony Lamanico had been run out of Shenandoah following a mob killing in nearby Hometown. The three men were later released.
In the meantime, Dr. Hobbs of the Ashland State Hospital was finishing the autopsies of Pensyl and Mansfield. Several buckshot pellets were recovered from Mansfield's body, suggesting that a sawed-off shotgun was used in the murder. The condition of Mansfield's elbows and knees indicated that he had been dragged on the ground, while a hole in the victim's hip was discovered, believed to be the result of an ice pick. As for Pensyl, he was killed by a "pumpkin ball" bullet that struck him in the forehead and exited through the top of his skull. Buckshot pellets were also recovered from his body. Both men appeared to have been shot at close range. Police also examined the victim's clothing and shoes, and noted that even though the car was found mired in mud, the shoes of both men were clean.
One of the largest police investigations in Pennsylvania history was now in full swing and hundreds of locals were questioned about the victims. It was learned that Pensyl and Mansfield were seen in a local poolroom the Friday afternoon prior to their deaths. They flashed large wads of money and bragged to their friends about their sudden wealth, which came from an undisclosed source. It was surmised that Pensyl and Mansfield hadn't formed their friendship until mid-February and since that time they were frequent fixtures in Shamokin pool halls and bars. Yet, no explanations were given for the six days when Pensyl and Mansfield seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. Where they had gone and what they had done were anyone's guess.
Berks County Detective Marks uncovered evidence implying that both men were involved in an illegal gambling ring in Reading and were eventually run out of the city by authorities, which explains how Pensyl and his wife ended up in Shamokin, even though the widow insisted they had come to visit a sick relative. Other holes began to emerge in Esther Sassaman's story. Unbeknownst the Esther, police had checked up on the Franklin Street address she had given them and discovered that Pensyl had terminated his lease on the apartment in late February. When questioned about her late husband's employment, she said that she never asked him about the source of his income, nor did she ever ask her husband about his prolonged absences from home. Esther also failed to inform police about a Shamokin bar fight her husband was involved in the week before Pensyl's murder. When the police confronted her about this incident, she admitted that she was present during the argument but had left the bar prior to the physical altercation.
|Rockview State Penitentiary, circa 1940|
A Shady Character Laid to Rest and the Mysterious Blonde
It was around this time District Attorney Robert M. Fortney launched his investigation into the murders. He announced that Mansfield had been active in numerous small-time rackets using the alias "Joe Duffy". According to court documents, Mansfield, going by the name Joe Duffy, had escaped from the Rockview Penitentiary several years earlier. He was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary after robbing a clothing store in Danville, and was paroled on December 24, 1938. Unbeknownst to most of Mansfield's relatives and friends, he had a wife somewhere in Philadelphia.
Mansfield's funeral was held on Saturday, March 5, in the home of his aunt, Mrs. Sarah O'Brien. Plainclothes officers staked out the residence, scanning those in attendance for underworld figures. Among those who came to the funeral was Harry Mansfield, the victim's brother, who was serving a long-term sentence himself at Eastern State Penitentiary. He was accompanied by prison guards. Absent from the affair was Mansfield's "secret" wife, the former Amelia Peskiwicz of Brady. She didn't arrive from Philadelphia until after Mansfield had already been lowered into the ground. She was immediately detained for questioning.
Nor far away in the county seat of Sunbury, a tall, buxom blonde arrived over the weekend and asked where she could view the body of Fred Pensyl. She said she was a personal friend from Harrisburg. Sunbury officials promply telephoned the state police, telling them to keep an eye out for the mysterious blonde, but she never showed up at Pensyl's funeral in Shamokin.
An Undigested Lobster Reveals a Clue
On March 7, Bucknell University pathologist Dr. John W. Rice announced what he had found inside the stomachs of the victims. Apparently, both men had consumed a savory meal of lobster and shrimp just an hour before their deaths. This would prove to be the most important clue yet discovered, as very few coal region eateries served such fare. Detectives now had something to go on, and they turned their attention to high-class restaurants within a 30-mile radius of Brennan's Farm.
The lobster eaten by the dead men wasn't the only thing in hot water. On the day Dr. Rice announced his findings, state police ordered the arrest of Esther Sassaman Pensyl. She was taken to jail and booked on charges of withholding information. At the Northumberland County Jail, the widow was kept in solitary confinement and denied visitors until she agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Pensyl, it was soon learned, had another wife and a child residing in Washington, D.C. When informed that her husband was a bigamist, Esther expressed little concern. This led police to theorize that Esther herself was involved, on some level, in the prostitution racket. Their suspicions proved correct. The Reading police revealed that Esther had worked in several houses of ill repute while living in the city, but when confronted with this information the widow refused to talk. Sources in Washington confirmed that Fred Pensyl was known by the local authorities to be involved in white slave traffic. Because Pensyl's illicit activities crossed state lines, the state police now had a new partner in their investigation-- the federal government.
On March 17, two men were arrested in Philadelphia after they were overheard in a tavern boasting about the Kulpmont murders, and how the slaying was part of white slave syndicate feud. These two men, Joseph Gianforti, of Harrisburg, and William Hancock, of Shamokin, were arrested on suspicion of homicide and held without bail. These two men were not unknown to local authorities; Hancock had previously done time in the federal prison in Lewisburg for counterfeiting and was also suspected in the murder of a Mount Carmel man named Dominic Logan.
But Here's Where It Gets Weird. Really Weird.
The Pensyl-Mansfield murders probably would've been a lot easier for the detectives working the case if there weren't so many darn aliases involved. Investigators learned that Joseph Gianforti's legal name was Joseph Sansone. Once this news was uncovered, Sansone was arraigned on March 28 in Danville in Montour County on a morals charge. On the evening of February 24, 1939- the same evening Fred Pensyl left Shamokin to return to Reading- two people checked into a cheap hotel in Danville seeking a room for the night for a little hanky-panky. According to the hotel's register, this couple was none other than Joseph Gianforti/Sansone and Esther Sassaman Pensyl. The same names appeared on the same hotel's register on March 1.
Of course, this refuted the widow's initial story that she was alone at the Nolan home on the evening when her husband returned to Reading for a change of clothing. And, unless you happen to have been alive during the 1930s, you might not know that it was illegal for a man and a woman who weren't married to check into the same hotel room (thus the morals charge brought against Sansone). Mrs. Pensyl, who was still locked up in Northumberland County, was also charged by police. In court, the night clerk testified that Sansone and Mrs. Pensyl frequently stayed at the hotel and that, on numerous occasions, they were accompanied by another couple. On March 30, both Joseph Sansone and William Hancock- who bragged about the murders in Philadelphia- were released from jail due to lack of evidence. On April 6, Esther Sassaman Pensyl was released from the Northumberland County jail.
The Lanzetti Connection
On July 2, 1939, the Philadelphia underworld was rocked by the brutal murder of Willie Lanzetti, one of the city's biggest mobsters and leader of the Lanzetti crime family. The six Lanzetti brothers- Leo, Pius, Willie, Ignatius, Lucian, and Teo- were named as prime suspects of more than 15 murders in and around Philadelphia in the 20s and 30s. The family had a stake in everything from liquor bootlegging to prostitution, and their activities extended well into the coal region. During this time, the Lanzetti family frequently waged war against Harry "Nig" Rosen and his mob. A year earlier, Lanzetti hitman Peter Gallo was abducted and his bullet-riddled corpse was later found in an abandoned stripping pit in Tamaqua. This was around the time of the infamous "Flag Day Massacre" in Hometown, in which Lanzetti associates Peter Bisciotti, Guistine Starace and Leo Pugliese were gunned down inside the same Schuylkill County roadhouse frequented by Fred Pensyl.
By now it was evident that a full-fledged gang war was being waged across the Keystone State and there was a systematic attempt to exterminate the Lanzetti family and its associates. Fred Pensyl and John Mansfield were believed to have been among these associates. In the annals of organized crime, Pensyl and Mansfield may have only been small fish, but they went out in a hail of gunfire every bit as gracelessly as Albert Anastasia, James "Diamond Jim" Colosimo, Fred Goetze and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Unfortunately, the case eventually turned cold as the federal authorities and state law enforcement agencies turned their attention away from the Kulpmont massacre and toward the bigger fish in mobster sea, forever leaving unsolved the murders of Fred Pensyl and John Mansfield.
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 2, 1939
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 3, 1939
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 6, 1939
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 8, 1939
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 17, 1939
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 28, 1939
Mount Carmel Item, March 2, 1939
Mount Carmel Item, March 3, 1939